Ella Florence Fondren, philanthropist, was born on June 1, 1880, the third child and elder daughter of Allen Cathy and Mary (Pogue) Cochrum of Hazel, Kentucky. When Ella was about six, the family moved to Corsicana, Texas. Her father died in 1895, and she quit school to help care for her family with six siblings. As a teenager she worked in her family's boardinghouse. There she met Walter W. Fondren, her future husband, who worked as a driller. Fondren remained in Corsicana only a few years, leaving in 1901 to take drilling jobs in the Gulf Coast oilfields. He continued to stay in contact with Ella, however, and returned to marry her on February 14, 1904. They had three children. Walter Fondren continued running operations in oilfields along the Gulf Coast but increasingly concentrated his drilling in the Humble oilfield northeast of Houston. He credited Ella with determining some of his oil acquisitions. In 1911 he became the major stockholder in the new Humble Oil Company (now Exxon Company, U.S.A.).
The Fondrens established the Fondren Lectures in Religious Thought at Southern Methodist University in 1919. They gave major financial support for the construction of a new building at St. Paul's Methodist Church in 1929. In 1938 they donated nearly half a million dollars to SMU to build the Fondren Library. Walter Fondren also made large contributions to the Methodist Home for Orphans at Waco. Walter Fondren died in January 1939 while attending a Methodist conference. Ella Fondren carried on his philanthropic interests and assumed some of his directorial posts. She replaced him at Southern Methodist University, thereby becoming the first woman to serve on SMU's board of trustees and governors. In 1940 she succeeded him on the board of directors of the Methodist Home for Orphans at Waco and on the Methodist Board of Homes and Hospitals, retaining her position on the latter board for twenty years. In 1946 Ella Fondren and her children provided $1 million for the Fondren Library at Rice Institute.
The Fondren Foundation, established by Ella Fondren in 1948, made major grants to assist the expansion of Methodist Hospital in 1950 and 1976 and to launch the Fondren and Brown Cardiovascular and Orthopedic Research Center, completed in 1964. Fondren also ensured that the original Methodist Hospital operations remained solvent until a modern structure was completed in 1951. She served on the board of directors for Methodist Hospital for more than thirty years and on the board of Baylor University as well. Her foundation supported the growth of Baylor University College of Medicine and of St. Luke's Episcopal Hospital. The Institute for Religion at the Texas Medical Center was launched with her support. She regularly visited the institutions her family had assisted, evaluated their facilities, and insisted that the buildings she funded be large and the equipment state-of-the-art. The Fondren family provided major support for science buildings at Southwestern University in Georgetown and at Southern Methodist University. The foundation also established the Fondren Scholarships and the Fondren Lectureships there. Scarritt College in Nashville, Tennessee, named an education building for Ella Fondren in appreciation of her grant to construct the facility. When Rice University sought funds to add a research wing onto the Fondren Library in 1968, the Fondrens responded with another large grant. Ella Fondren left the Southern Methodist University board of trustees and governors in 1969 but continued serving on several other boards, especially that of Methodist Hospital. She outlived her children and spent her last five years at that facility, which provided both social opportunities and nursing care. She died there on May 3, 1982, shortly before her 102d birthday, and was buried at Forest Park Cemetery in Houston.